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Archive for August, 2009

Young Man Loitering

Tuesday night I squander a rare evening with just Alani.  Rachel and the boys are still up north.  I vow no t.v.,  but can’t resist looking at the cable listings and stumble upon the original 1935 version of Les Miserables.  Alani watches it with me.  She’s pleased with any t.v., even a black and white movie.

By the time it’s over, it’s time for bed.  “I’m tired” Alani says, closing her bedroom door.  I go downstairs and surf the internet. An hour later I come back upstairs.  Alani’s bedroom door is closed.   In the quiet, self-reproach settles on me.  I wasted the  last evening I’ll have with her for  five days, with television.

But her door swings open.  She steps into the hall, still dressed in bright orange shorts and t-shirt.  She’s been reading, she said.  She’s wide awake.  It’s 11:20 p.m. 

“Want to get a Frosty?” I say.

“Really?” she asks.

“Sure,” I shrug.

She’s game.

“Want to walk?” I ask.  The Wendys is a mile away.

She shrugs, as if there is nothing unusual about us walking to get a Frosty at 11:30 at night.  “Sure,” she says.

I clip on Max’s leash.   He has not a mean bone in his body, but looks fierce – a good companion on a late night walk. 

Woodward is deserted.  We walk past closed shops.  The only sign of life we encounter is a bouncer sitting on a sidewalk chair outside a basement jazz bar.  Loud music swells up the stairs, then dies away as we pass. Just past the bar, a young man – 18? 21? walks towards us from the Wendy’s  parking lot, carrying a paper bag.  The Wendy’s is closed and dark, except for the drive-through.  He ordered on foot, and is eating out of the bag. 

I don’t like the looks of the dark Wendy’s parking lot, so we walk toward a brightly lit, 24-hour Dunkin Donuts a block further.  The Wendy’s guy, standing on the sidewalk ahead of us, tries to strike up a conversation as we approach.  I nod curtly and walk briskly by him.  Alani goes inside the Dunkin Donuts to order.  I stand outside with Max, watching Alani through the plate glass window.  She’s the only person in the Dunkin Donuts.  I am the only person outside.  The street is deserted except for the Wendy’s guy, who is now loitering half a block away. 

I don’t like his aimlessness.  He walks toward me.

He tries some small talk again.  He appears to be slightly under the influence.  He offers Max french fries from his Wendy’s bag.  Max sniffs, but declines.  I’m irked that the guy is not intimidated by Max.   I take up the slack in the leash, trying to convey the impression that a tight leash is necessary to control this animal.

He pats Max on the head.  “Good dog, huh?” he says.

“Max!” I say.  “Sit!”  Max sits.

“Obedient, huh?” the guy says.

“Uh-huh,” I say.  I hope it will occur to the guy that I may have other commands in my arsenal.  Like “Kill!”.

I look through the window.  The Dunkin Donuts clerk is smiling and talking to Alani.  A car pulls into the Dunkin Donuts parking lot.  The car door opens and shuts.  I vaguely notice a man in a rastafarian hat get out, but my focus is on the Wendy’s guy, standing in front of me, and Alani, getting her order at the counter. 

I glance at the parking lot.  The guy in the Rastafarian hat is standing ten yards away, looking at me.  “Could you move your dog away from the entrance?” he asks.  That’s more like it.

“Max!” I say in my best guard-dog-trainer voice.  “Come!”   I give the leash a sharp tug.  Max hops up and hurries after me.  Rastafarian goes in as Alani comes out.

“Whatcha get?” I ask.  She hold up a sundae concoction in a clear plastic container.

I jerk Max’s leash.  He jumps up.  Alani falls in beside me.  I turn to look back after half a block.  The Wendy’s guy is headed in the other direction.

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Stealing

I didn’t like it when my Dad gave his tools away.  He did it when he and my mom moved to an assisted living community three years ago.    For the first time in fifty years, he didn’t have a house to maintain.  But shouldn’t a dad always have a cross-cut saw?

They left behind the last house at which my Dad would preside over Christmas present unwrapping, hamburgers on a Weber grill, and Kentucky bluegrass.  They also left behind, for the new owners, a concrete angel – a lawn ornament that had watched over their house. 

Three years later they found cancer in my dad’s neck.  Last February a surgeon took out a chunk beneath his jaw.  When we all gathered at an Irish pub a week later for a surprise birthday party for my mom, my Dad was not at her side.  He was home, recovering from the surgery and gathering strength for a course of radiation.

The next morning I woke early at the Holiday Inn Express.  It was six am, cold and dark.  I left to get coffee, and was surprised to see my brother Rick already up, sitting in the lobby in jeans and a button-down dress shirt, puttering on his laptop.  I drove to Starbucks, came back, and handed him a black coffee. 

“Thanks,” he said.  He peeled the lid off and blew on the  coffee. 

“We took the angel,” he said.

He told me the story: The night before, my four middle-aged brothers and sisters crept up to my parents’ old house – occupied for three years now by a new family –  in my sister’s van.   Tim and Ann pretended to be a strolling couple.  They then dashed across the lawn, hoisted the angel, and lugged it to the van.  Tires squealed, gravel flew.  They brought it to  Ann’s house,  about a mile from the Holiday Inn.

After hearing this story, I smile on the elevator and down the hall to our hotel room. The children are still asleep.  I get in bed in the dark with Rachel.  I tell her about the angel.  She sits up, taking her latte from my hand. 

“But . . .that’s stealing,” she says. 

I’m taken aback.  I expected the heist to be celebrated, not questioned.     

“Not really,” I counter.  “It was my parents’ angel.”

She sips her latte in the dark.

“But they left it there,” she says.  “The window blinds were theirs too, but not after the closing.”    

She’s right. Of course it’s stealing.  That’s the point.   Kleptomania is a crime commmitted to get even with God for a crime he has committed against you.  But I couldn’t expect Rachel to approve.  She doesn’t lie, and she doesn’t steal.  

We rouse the children, pack the car, and leave at dawn.  The fields are stiff with frost.  I swing by my sister’s house to say goodbye.   The entire household is asleep. My brother-in- law unlocks the door grumpily in his pajamas, and goes back to bed.  I turn around in the living room and see the angel sitting on a low shelf, its hands between its knees, it’s wings sprouting on either side of the chalk-white curls on it’s head. 

The house is silent. 

I bend at the waist, cradle the angel in my arms, and lift. It’s heavier than I thought.   A  pain stabs the small of my back.  I stagger, brace my legs, and straighten up.  “Open the door,” I grunt to Rachel.  She does, and flattens herself against the wall so I can wrestle the angel past her.       

Two hours later we are half way across the state, headed home on I-94.  The angel is in the rear cargo space.  I’ m not returning it.  I’m stealing it myself. 

One of my sisters calls.  Rachel answers my cell. 

 “Where’s the angel?” my sister demands.

 “The one you guys took?” Rachel asks.

  “Yeah.”

 “I don’t know,” Rachel lies.  “We don’t have it.”

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I just read an academic article that explained how to make your stepchild like you.   You wouldn’t guess the content from the title, which was  “A Social Constructionist Multi Method Approach to Understanding the Stepparent Role”.  Yeah.

The scientists examined 40 stepfamilies (34 stepfather-biomom arrangements, 6 stepmother-biodad situations.)  Kids aged 10-19.  Here’s the finding of the scientists:  Your stepkids will like you if you do things with them that they like to do. 

Der.

They divided stepparents into three types:  1) Early Affinity Seeking (EAS); 2) Non-Affinity Seeking (NAS); and 3) Continuous Affinity Seeking (CAS). 

The EAS stepparents kissed-up to their prospective stepchildren while they were courting the kid’s mom or dad, but, once married or shacked up, stopped: Mission accomplished.

 The NAS stepparents made clear from the start that it was romance they were after, not a relationship with some other guy’s kids.   The NAS’s weren ‘t mean to the stepkids, the scientists said:  “In fact, usually in group outings and activities, they were quite nice to the children who would later become their stepchildren. However, the primary goal in these interactions was to solidify the romantic relationship with the child’s parent…”.

The CAS’s, in contrast, kept slogging away, during and after the courtship phase, being nice to the stepkids.

The result, the scientists said, was that the CAS’s had  “warm and close bonds with their stepchildren”.  The scheming EAS’s and don’t-give-a-damn NAS’s, not so much.  No surprise.  But there was a little nugget of wisdom amidst the sea of academic jargon, in the social scientists’ definition of what they meant by “affinity seeking”.

It doesn’t just mean spending time with a stepchild.  It means you do what they want to do.  Not what you want to do, and not – here’s the tricky part – what you think they should do:  “These stepparents . . . did things their stepchildren wanted to do (as opposed to what the stepparent wanted to do or thought the stepchildren should do.)”

For example, suppose you know that reading Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World  aloud is a far better for an eleven year old stepson’s personal development than,  say (just for example), sitting in the basement playing Halo on the t.v , or that a bike ride in the fresh air is a far superior activity than, say,  sitting in the basement playing Halo on the t.v.  Apparently, to be a good Continuous Affinity Seeking stepfather, you should learn how to play Halo, no matter how much you hate it or how incompetent you are at hunting down on-screen aliens.

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firstdate 001Alani is questioning Rachel about our first date.  We’re sitting on a patch of grass at Cedar Point, Alani, Rachel, Jack, Michael, and me, eating hotdogs, french fries, and dip n dots after the wave pool.

Alani recently learned that the very first time I met Rachel, I decided  I wanted to marry her.  I didn’t mention this to Rachel on that first date so that she didn’t place me in the “Freak” category.

Would you have put him in the ‘freak’ category?” Alani asks Rachel.

“Yeah,” Rachel says. “Well,” she amends, “maybe not “freak”, but I would have thought, ‘dude, don’t be so desperate’.”

Alani probes:  “Did you know you wanted to marry him?

“NO.”  Rachel’s answer is a little too emphatic for my taste.

Alani gets up to throw her cardboard hot dog tray away.  She smirks at me.  “Poor Dad,” she says.  Rachel laughs.

This irritates me.  I consider my wooing of Rachel to have been a masterful performance.  She was clearly out of my league.  I knew I couldn’t rely on ordinary dating techniques.  Yes, I was head-over-heels after our two-hour conversation over buttered shrimp and cabernet, but I didn’t let on.  She had no inkling of what was going on inside my head.

As we said goodbye that night, standing outside the restaurant,  I impersonated a man who had just had a mildly enoyable time.  I smiled and got my car keys out of my pocket.  I didn’t mention that we would be spending the rest of our lives together.  I didn’t even try to set up a second date. 

It had rained earlier. The streetlights shone in the wet pavement.  The mist made her skin lovely.  But I made no move. 

And here’s what happened: She kissed me. 

Ha. 

It’s true.  On the cheek, yes, but didn’t her lips linger for just a moment?  I think they did.

And did I call her the next day?  No.  The day after that, perhaps?  No.  I didn’t call until three days later, despite the fact that for the entire 72 hours,  I replayed that two-hour first date, and that rainy-night kiss, again, and again, and again.

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Homesick Daughter

cell2 001I talk to Alani every day while she’s away on her Costa Rica vacation with her mom.  Alani’s ever-present cell phone, her life-line to her friends, won’t work in Central America, so she leaves it home.  I call her on her mom’s phone.

One night night in the middle of her trip she calls at dinner time. I get up from the table and talk to her.  She tells me about a harrowing trip along twisting mountain roads, that Costa Rican cows are odd looking, and that they watched a reality show called “Temptation Island”  on Costa Rican t.v.  After a few minutes we hang up. I return to the table.  My phone rings.  I see that it’s Alani again.

“Hi honey!” I say.  I stay sitting at the table this time.

“Dad,” she says.  “I forgot to tell you.  I miss….”

For just a moment, a split second, I think she is going to end that sentence with “…you”. 

Nope.

“…my cell phone,” she finishes.  “SO bad”.

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saddamdad 001Tuesday night I tell Jack to sit on the toilet.  He refuses.  I tell him he has to sit down, or he can’t go back in the basement t.v. room with Alani and Michael. Jack makes a run for the basement doorway. I intercept him, blocking the stairwell.

Rachel’s at ballet class.  I’m watching the kids and making dinner.  It’s been a long day.

Jack eventually goes in the bathroom, closes the door, flushes the toilet within three seconds, and comes back out.  I tell him he has to sit down for a reasonable amount of time.  He refuses and makes another dash for the stairs.  Again, I block him. 

Repeat several times.  

I finally decree a time out, but have to chase Jack around the living room to implement it.  He’s easy to catch, but hard to lift. 

I go back to the kitchen.  I’m making dinner for Alani.  The boys already ate.  She likes pasta.  I poke around in the pantry and find only spaghetti – the thick kind that looks like white worms when cooked.  I carry the box to the top of the basement stairs and call down.   I want to find out if this spaghetti is acceptable to her.

“Alani,” I call.

What?” She calls back up with attitude.  Like I’m annoying her.  She’s texting her friends, and does not wish to be disturbed.

“Come up here,” I say.  “NOW.”  Chasing Jack has used up some of my reserve of patience.

I am a kind and gentle father.   But I am sometimes tempted to jettison that crap in favor of more nineteenth century approach – the  no-nonsense disciplinarian dad.  No hugs.  No I-love-you’s.  Just:  Here are the rules.  Obey them.  I can only manage nineteeth-century dad in short bursts, when I’ve been goaded into it.

Alani comes halfway up the stairs.   I make a speech.   I tell Alani that when I call her, I don’t want “what”.  I don’t want attitude.  I particularly don’t want attitude when I’m making her dinner while she sits in an easy chair in the basement, and if I get it again, that’s the end of her electronics for a while.  I add emphsis by jabbing my finger and chopping my hand in the air.

After dinner I call down the stairs to tell Michael he has to get off Halo in fifteen minutes.  He got the Halo game two weeks ago and has been living and breathing it since.  I want to sit down with a glass of red wine and watch cable.  Any cable.  I wait a full half hour before I come  downstairs, cabernet in hand.  Michael stares intently at the Halo screen.  “My turn,” I say. 

“Can I wait until the game is over?” Michael says.

I point out that I already gave him an extra fifteen minutes over the original fifteen minute warning.

Michael says the game is almost over.

“How many minutes?” I ask.

“Just a few” Michael says.

I say I would really like to sit down and watch some t.v now.  Michael says the game is over when he’s killed 50 aliens.  He says he’s killed 43 so far.  Standing with my wine glass, I watch as he continues to hunt aliens.  44. … 45.   When he kills the fiftieth, he hands me the clicker.

Rachel comes home fifteen minutes later.  I go upstairs.  I mention that I had altercations with the children.  Rachel says yes, Michael was just telling her about the t.v. issue.  I am about to describe my version of events, but realize that makes Rachel the tribunal and Michael and I litigants, on equal footing, both pressing our case before a judge.  That doesn’t seem like the right stepfather-stepchild dynamic.

Instead of pleading my case, I ask: “You trust me to be fair with the kids, don’t you?” 

“Ye..”  Rachel starts to say yes, then stops.  Instead, she says “I know you’ll do what you think is fair.”

At first take, that sounds like a vote of confidence.  But look a little closer:  What Rachel is actually saying is that I won’t necessarily be fair, but that I’ll think I’m being fair.  In other words: That no matter how tyrannical my behavior,  I delude myself into believing I’m fair.  Like Saddam Hussein.

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Ten Things

sailboat 001Dragonflymama at  www.stepmamastory.blogspot.com said some complimentary things about this blog, and asked that I post ten “revelations”  about myself.  Here’s they are:

1.  I’ve attempted piano, banjo, violin, harmonica, saxophone, recorder, guitar, and drums.   I can’t play any of them. 

2.  My first love interest was Mary Davich, in eighth grade.  Here’s how I  wooed her:  I rode my bike back in forth in front of her house.  My plan was that if she happened to come out, I’d pretend that my presence outside her home was coincidence.  I’d say, “Oh, do you live here?”.  She never did come out, so I  tried another technique:  calling her house and hanging up as soon as anyone answered.  That didn’t work either.

3.  When I was sixteen I asked my Dad, an accomplished pianist, to show me how to play the Notre Dame Victory March on the piano.  He’d taught me, note by painstaking note.  I still have it memorized. 

4.  I built a wooden sailboat when I was eighteen years old, with hand tools borrowed from the local library. 

5. The best hot shower I ever took was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, after my brothers and I returned from a five day backpacking trip.  When we got to our post-hike motel room, greasy and rank, I insisted that my brothers take their showers first.  I wasn’t being gracious.  I let them go first because I wanted to stay under the hot water as long as I pleased, without them whining about their turn.  

6. The drunkest I ever got was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, after the hot shower.  

7. I knew I was going to marry Rachel the first time I met her.  I decided not to tell her this on the first date, so she didn’t put me in the “freak” category.  I pretended that I was only mildly interested.

8.  I changed out our upstairs toilet by myself five months ago.  The discarded toilet is still hidden behind a shrub in our front yard.

9.  Once, driving to work, I couldn’t remember if I’d unplugged the iron.  I turned around and drove home.  By the time I entered the house I was already preoccupied thinking about something else.  Back on the highway afterward, I realized I had no memory of what I’d done in the house.  Zero.  I turned around, drove home again, and re-entered the house to investigate.  Here’s what I’d done when I’d returened the first time:  Plugged the iron in, and left.

10. I’ve been trying to talk Rachel into selling our house and buying a big sailboat to live on.

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